Recently I saw a video on the excellent YouTube channel Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. Entitled 'A New History for Humanity - The Human Era' it explored the idea of the Holocene calendar which was first proposed in Nature by Cesare Emiliani (1993) [PAYWALL]. One version of this calendar would make the current year 12,016. Emiliani's idea was to introduce cardinal numbering for the 'Human Era' he was frustrated with the ordinal numbering of the Julian and later Gregorian calendars that measured years in two directions from an origin point which has no relevance for non-christian cultures.
If we take as the origin point ~12,000 years ago the resulting calendar will approximately cover the period from the late Mesolithic / pre-ceramic Neolithic when humans first began shaping their environment in 'permanent' ways; terraforming the Earth to their needs. Archaeological sites that relate to this period include the site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and Jericho in the Palestinian Territories. The video from Kurzgesagt contains a beautifully illustrated timeline of human history if this were the starting point of our calendar encompassing the whole world and varied cultures as the new calendar system has no specific cultural ties despite simply being the Gregorian calendar plus 10,000 years.
Whilst it is likely impractical to have the world change its calendar in this way (although most other proposals for calendar reform are significantly more problematic to implement   ). It does generate some interesting questions for archaeologists and historians. Namely, how does the perception of human history change when the calendar numbering that we use firstly has no artificial separation of events before an arbitrary date, and those after it, and secondly encompasses the whole period of humans constructing permanent structures or permanently altering the Earth?
There is a lot to unpack here but I want to start with the artificial distinction between periods of history, often attached loosely to an arbitrary date. For example, I am a medieval and post-medieval archaeologist. These two periods, in Western Europe at least, have no clear dividing point; a point when the medieval ends and post-medieval begins cannot be definitively defined. Some academic societies, conference, or other places that need to define a terminus to one of these two periods claim it to be 1500, others 1600, yet others (in Britain at least) the end of the Tudor period of monarchy. I think its clear what the problem with this is, to the people living through these supposed transitions there was instead continuity. The same is clearly true of the people who lived through what became the BC/AD divide. I think therefore that this is one of the key strengths of the calendar. However, there can be significant debate over when the calendar should begin.
The first 'permanent' structures for which we have archaeological evidence is, at first glance a reasonable place to begin such a calendar. For the non-archaeologist this would seem to be the period when humanity is first making a deliberate and lasting impact on the face of our planet. However, this would then define the art produced by anatomically modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic as not belonging to the Human era. You would start to run into the same issues; the transition to monumental temples and the first cities would not have been a sudden one but rather part of a continuity that includes the permanent and semi-permanent coastal fishing communities of the Mesolithic and the nomadic groups of the Upper Palaeolithic. Would it perhaps be better then to start the Human Era calendar at the first anatomically modern humans, the first Homo Sapiens? I have no answer, and I am inclined to think that this would be a problematically deep amount of time for any calendar to be useful. I am interested in the debate and any of your views.
The next thing that I think is most interesting, and which is highlighted by the video, is the shift in perspective that this change of calendar could contribute to for those studying the past. The use of the Gregorian calendar, which has become an world-wide standard for most non-religious matters, undoubtedly contributes to a colonial notion of the superiority of Western / Christian culture. How much the calendar is a factor can be debated, but as one amongst many it contributes to problematic readings of history and the supposed 'sophistication' of different groups across the globe in the same time period. Would it not be better then, to pin the calendar to a non-religious, non-western origin or zeroth point? Whilst the construction of Göbekli Tepe is now thought to be the first permanent site of worship that can be recognised, that worship was to a deity or force that has been forgotten. The construction of that site, and Jericho are deep enough in time to be divorced from any anachronistic concepts of nationality, race, or religion. From this starting point would it be possible to see with the same wonder the rise of agriculture, permanent settlements, and increasingly complex societies across the world without judgemental comparisons? I would hope so, and I would also hope that archaeologists and historians who deal with this depth of time make the effort to do so regardless of the calendar that they are used to working with.
The final thing that this video and Holocene Calendar idea touch on without explicitly mentioning is the idea of the Anthropocene. That is the new geological epoch that many agree we currently live in. This proposed epoch encompasses the period when humans have had a significant and potentially irreversible impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems. This is a very similar idea to that which Emiliani used to propose the start of his Holocene or Human Era calendar. Naturally these two ideas run into similar problems. There are proposed dates for the start of the Anthropocene from c.8000 years ago [PAYWALL] (almost the entirety of the HE calendar), right up until 1964 [PAYWALL]. The Anthropocene by definition is the human epoch; what that means is still being debated but the similarities in idea to the HE calendar are too striking to ignore and so perhaps the start of both should be the same date? Even if that were agreed, I am sure that there would be endless debate about what date that should be. I am interested in what you think? Are the Holocene Calendar/Human Era the same as the Anthropocene? If not why not? And when should each of these start?
This is the video which inspired me to delve more deeply into calendars and the Anthropocene. I encourage you to subscribe as every video that they produce never fails to be interesting and thought provoking.